Primary Sources and Their Contexts

Primary sources kept in archives and other repositories were for the most part never intended for use by today’s researchers. Rather, most surviving records had specific purposes when they were created, which rarely align with modern usages. The colonial archives, and specifically collections of boarding school records, are no exception. Alistair Tough notes that records produced by imperial administrators were intended in the first instance to aid colonial governance. As a result, Tough asserts that modern use of colonial records must be grounded in hermeneutics, or rather, that primary sources must be read and interpreted based on an understanding of their context in the past.11 Administrative records for boarding schools, created and maintained by school and federal officials, are just that: information gathered by mostly white, largely male colonial administrators for the purposes of managing and running boarding schools. Understanding this provenance, and its impact on the types of data preserved in various records, is thus necessary when researching and representing boarding schools using biased administrative documents.

Surviving files from and about the Carlisle Indian School are typical of extant records from other contemporaneous boarding schools. Student files detail academic, medical, personal, and disciplinary information. These files are supplemented by student financial and enrollment ledgers as well as official correspondence. Ephemeral records, especially school newspapers and event programs, also frequently survive, along with the occasional cache of student class work, autobiographical memoirs, and personal scrapbooks. All told, these documents form a complex network of information about each individual in which distinctions in provenance, and thus information reliability, can become obscured. This archival web thus poses a significant challenge for scholars researching any Indian boarding school and its students.

When faced with an analog collection of these records, scholars are left with little recourse other than long hours spent in situ wading through hundreds of boxes and folders, piecing information together bit by bit.12 Digitization changes the very process of this search, re-presenting analog records within a guided framework that enhances scholars’ and students’ ability to search and understand them. Aside from eliminating the physical obstacles to accessing remote archives, projects like the CISDRC allow users to concurrently consult as many documents as they can open on their computers. In a way only made possible through digitization, users can simultaneously access records from numerous different collections and repositories. By re-presenting records side by side, users can more easily piece together stories and chronologies from information in disparate documents. Tasks that once took months, such as consulting all existing student files or examining which students came from a particular Nation or on a particular date, can now be done anytime, anywhere, with the click of a button.

Ease of access does not, however, make the archival web easier to untangle, or provenance easier to establish. This is where a digitization project’s metadata framework comes into play. Common elements to all digital humanities projects, including search functions, item descriptions, and various tags, all help to frame the myriad records available to users. Drawing upon data inter-relatability, this frame gives users the information they need to establish document provenance and context. Search functions, encompassing both staff-created descriptions and computergenerated transcriptions, replace mere collection inventories, allowing users to find even passing mentions of their keyword instantaneously. Document summaries, written by staff with a knowledge of the school and its history, help users to browse records and establish authorial purpose without relying on paleography and prior knowledge. Tags then pull together related documents based on people, places, organizations, topics, and archival repositories. Links between records piece together previously separated chains of correspondence and recordkeeping, automatically providing users with more aspects of a story or event. Topic tags bring together

Example of a document post, including a summary and tags

Figure 2.1 Example of a document post, including a summary and tags.

distinct stories within a broader historical trend, identifying contextual chronologies that influenced both record creation and people’s actions. Digitization is thus a form of re-presentation, in which individual analog documents are made to communicate with one another toward an end of increased information accessibility and con- textualization. This increased juxtaposition between related documents is valuable for scholars, students, and descendants, as it lowers the threshold of entry for historical research.

Furthermore, document inter-relatability sheds new light on old questions about the Carlisle Indian School, while also giving rise to new questions and hypotheses about its operations. Consider, for example, long-held arguments about student censorship. Scholars have noted that school publications, even when claiming to faithfully present student voices, were heavily edited and censored by school administrators. Jacqueline Fear-Segal’s investigation of the shadow editor of Carlisle’s school newspapers, known as the Man-on-the-Bandstand, plays a central role in her larger discussions of surveillance at the school.13 Using the CISDRC, scholars can trace the development of this symbol of censorship over time, identifying instances of moralization, surveillance, and discipline as presented in print. With the aid of summaries and tags, it also becomes clear that student voices were frequently co-opred to support the moralizing, Christianizing, assimilationist mission of the school.14 This trend of censorship in school newspapers is thus easily recognizable thanks to the large number of examples brought together through digitization and metadata comparison.

The actual implementation of this censorship is also now identifiable thanks to the digitization of administrative correspondence that, until recently, have never had a proper item-level inventory. Scholars now have access to letters between school and federal officials noting how the newspaper will be an effective means of spreading “the interests of the work” at Carlisle.15 Similar correspondence also shows that administrators sought to quash all negative news about the school, even when it appeared in the local and national press, as a means of “doing everything possible to build up, rather than pull down, to help to preserve the good name of the [Indian] Service, and to ‘lend a hand.’”16 These brief examples illustrate that censorship by school and federal officials in school newspapers was part of larger, purposefully orchestrated efforts designed to shape and protect Carlisle’s public image while simultaneously furthering its colonialist activities. This finding might not be surprising for researchers, but it has only been adequately evidenced through digitization, and the links created by a digital re-presentation of the school’s administrative archives.17

In addition to uncovering new evidence of the colonialist operations of the Carlisle Indian School, digitization through the CISDRC has helped amplify the voices of some of the school’s students, preserved through a variety of official and ephemeral records. Doing so has shown how digitization provides a framework for both the representation of the colonial archive and the perspectives of the colonized. One significant contribution of digitization in this vein is the uncovering of a heretofore understudied form of student expression: official complaints. Recently digitized official correspondence, again originally meant solely for internal use, preserves many instances of students complaining about censorship, surveillance, and discipline. Mamie Vilcan (Chitimacha) complained about mail surveillance in 1913, claiming that the school matron had personally targeted her letters for examination and confiscation despite Vilcan’s right to privacy both under the law and as an adult.18

Other students complained of harsh discipline and poor treatment at the hands of school administrators, poor quality food and healthcare, and non-consensual enrollment.19 Taken individually, these sources provide rare student perspectives on conditions at the Carlisle Indian School; when brought together through the metadata framework of the CISDRC, they reveal otherwise obscure trends in the school’s history, including methodical attempts to surveil mail, frequent complaints against school officials, and patterns of favoritism for specific high-profile student groups including athletes.

Furthermore, digitally re-presenting student perspectives within a larger framework helps recontextualize information found elsewhere in the colonial archives, reshaping what we know about events and actions in the history of the school. An example of this is the case of Wesley Two Moons (Cheyenne), who died at the school in 1911 of pneumonia. Two Moons’s student file is sparse, like that of most students who died at the school.20 In these records, administrators attribute the death of Two Moons to a medical history of illness. However, an anonymous student complaint about discipline and the school’s guardhouse adds a new layer to that story. Metadata for dates, topics, and people link Two Moons’s student file to this document, in which an individual identified by school officials as Two Moons complains about harsh

Letter from Mamie Vilcan to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 2, 1913

Figure 2.2 Letter from Mamie Vilcan to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 2, 1913.

treatment at the hands of multiple school officials. Two Moons states that he was thrown in the “cool and damp” guardhouse for a minor infraction, where he “contracted pneumonia and was neglected till almost dead.”21 Written by Two Moons days before his death, this complaint is the only surviving testimony of his treatment at Carlisle. Presenting either Two Moons’s student file or his “anonymous” complaint individually tells us very different things about events in Two Moon’s personal history and the institutional history of the Carlisle Indian School. When represented together in an inter-linked framework, these documents speak to one another, extending our understanding of Two Moons’s personal experience at the school while simultaneously challenging prevailing notions about discipline and health as presented in the colonial archive.

Finally, it is worth noting that a digitized re-presentation of archival records can help highlight and counteract gaps in source and information survival. Carlisle students and alumni who died while the school was still in operation serve as good examples of these gaps. The student files that survive today seem to have been maintained by school administrators primarily to keep track of living alumni. As a result, the files of students and alumni who died prior to Carlisle’s closing in 1918 were likely discarded by school officials as part of their record-keeping practices.22 This historic action significantly impacts modern-day efforts to identify and study many of Carlisle’s former students. When consulting analog records, a sparse or nonexistent student file significantly hinders research efforts, since one must then search within dozens of minimally indexed ledger books. Digitization and the power of search functions changes that research process, as all documents mentioning a person can easily be brought together. Tagging people’s names is especially powerful in this regard, as the records for individuals who were known by more than one name or name spelling can be easily correlated and compared. Digital re-presentation thus serves as an important means of recovering information about all of Carlisle’s former students, leading to significant shifts in how the school is understood. Numerous individuals now interred under headstones reading “Unknown” have been identified thanks to previously unsearchable enrollment and financial ledgers.

Whether in analog or digital format, the colonial archive poses significant limitations to our understanding of students’ experiences and Indian boarding schools like Carlisle. However, digitization and the re-presentation of these records helps counteract internal bias and information absence. Through metadata tags and the resulting ease with which records can be cross-referenced, additional information about student experiences becomes available. Many descendants of Carlisle’s students now are able to find more information about their ancestors that was previously hidden within bound ledgers and publications.

 
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